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Events in Iran 'Polarizing' Nation Further

Interviewee: Farideh Farhi, Affiliate Graduate Faculty, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 3, 2009

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With the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now formalized, Iranian expert Farideh Farhi says there is now "the possibility of increased radicalism among the population." Farhi points to an evolution in protest slogans, for example, that started with calls for Ahmadinejad's removal and now make references to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a "killer." She says the weekend trials of more than one hundred people who called the election a fraud indicate both the rigidity and confusion of the regime. Given the increasing polarization of the political elite, she expresses doubts about the country's ability to achieve reconciliation. Farhi says it is wise for the United States to stay back and let events develop at their own pace in Iran.

This morning, the Iranian leadership went through the formal ceremony of having Supreme Leader Khamenei endorse the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and there will be a formal inauguration on Wednesday. Was there anything unusual about this ceremony today?

Yes. Today was the confirmation ceremony in which Ahmadinejad received a signed confirmation letter from Ayatollah Khamenei. For the first time in twenty years, the ceremony was not shown live on Iranian domestic television. The only thing Iranians saw were a few pictures. Obviously, there will be more news later about what everybody said, but there were many major players missing, which was also a very significant difference from previous occasions. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,  the head of the Expediency Council, was not there, and former President Mohammad Khatami wasn't there. This is unusual because it is customary for a former president, even if the current president is reelected, to "pass on the mantle" so to speak. Rafsanjani's lack of appearance is particularly significant because of his official position in the Islamic Republic.

Over the weekend we had the trials start of more than one hundred people, many of them prominent players in Iranian society. Some of them gave public confessions that were meant to endorse the victory of Ahmadinejad. The defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi said this was a "sham trial" and that the confessions amounted to "medieval-era torture." Why did the authorities begin this trial right before the inauguration ceremonies?

It was another version of the way the election was handled immediately after June 12. There was an attempt to intimidate the opposition and redirect attention from the reelection. Everything was done very hastily. It was more like a kangaroo court with one hundred people who are facing very different charges. Some of them, as you mentioned, are prominent political players in Iran, while others were ordinary people arrested in the street. It was not at all clear how they were going to treat all of these different charges. No lawyers were present. Even their own news agencies were told very hastily to show up. As Mousavi said, it was truly ironic, because the court was presumably intended to prove to the population that the election was not a fraudulent election. But the court itself was conducted in such a fraudulent and manipulative way that it really confirms the kind of doubts that people have had about the way things have been conducted in the past couple of months.

[The] camp headed by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad continue to believe that they can resolve this problem by pressuring the population and using violence by accusing their opponents of treason.

When we last spoke on June 22, you were talking about this "clash of titans" in Iran with major players on both sides--some saying the Ahmadinejad reelection was honest, others saying it was fraudulent. It's now been almost two months since the election. Things aren't really settled, are they?

Not at all. In fact, it has become even more polarized. The lines have been drawn even more clearly. You have on one side the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is continuing to support Mr. Ahmadinejad, who in the past two months has not done anything to move in the direction of reconciliation. If anything, his speeches and actions have been even more polarizing. On the other side, you again have very important figures: Not only do you have presidential candidates like Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, but also former Presidents [Mohammad] Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, who is a major player in Iranian politics, has been very clear that he does not approve of the way the situation after the election has been handled by the authorities. On top of that, you have had very tragic occurrences in the streets of Iran with the tremendous amount of violence against demonstrators. People have been imprisoned not only in prisons that are notoriously known to everyone, but also in some [new] sites that are obviously awful places with reports of torture and mistreatment taking place within. It is not at all clear how this polarization can lead to some sort of reconciliation.

Last time when we spoke, you thought perhaps there would be some efforts at compromise.

I was hoping that there were going to be efforts. It was my sense that if those compromise efforts did not come into play, then we'd be witnessing a tremendous amount of violence. Unfortunately, my worst thoughts were proven right. It was very clear that the camp headed by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad continues to believe that they can resolve this problem by pressuring the population and using violence by accusing their opponents of treason and acting as agents of foreign powers. In effect, that approaches the issue in a Stalinist manner. However, their calculations have not been very correct in assuming that if they use a sufficient amount of violence, they can put an end to the popular anger that has been generated. In that sense, they continue to be surprised by the resistance that is being shown--not only by major players in Iranian politics, but the people of Iran as well. This dissatisfaction has been growing since the election.

President Barack Obama has offered to talk to the Iranians, despite his stated unhappiness with the way the election was held. There was a deadline set with the UN General Assembly late next month for Iran to make a positive response to the offer to talk about suspending Iran's uranium-enrichment program. Do you think the United States should do anything else right now, or would it be wise to stay back?

It's wise to stay back. The ball is in the Iranian court, and the Iranian dynamic at this point is so chaotic and in so much disarray that it's not very clear whether or not even the Iranian government is ready or willing to engage in talks. From my point of view, given the dynamic and given the kind of attack the opposition is under for essentially being pawns of the United States and outside powers, the United States needs to give room for the Iranian dynamics to follow their natural course.

Have you been surprised by the willingness of Mousavi to continue to speak out as much as he has?

Things have clearly moved in a direction that has the potential of becoming so radicalized that Mousavi and others will not be able to manage it.

Yes. In many ways he represents the kind of anger and shock that was generated out of the election that you also see among the Iranian population. Clearly, the camp that follows the supreme leader and Ahmadinejad is not only surprised about the staunch stance that Mousavi has taken, but also by what Khatami has been doing with Rafsanjani and Karroubi. Of course, this goes along with the persistence of a good part of the Iranian population to object to what has happened both during the election and after. This pressure has an impact. This popular pressure has an impact on players like Mousavi, who really doesn't have any other choice given the pressure he's under. But he's remained with a stance based on principles in many ways. It's also significant that Mousavi, from the beginning, has argued that what has happened during and since the election has been a travesty of the values of the revolution itself. That is why I say that it is a "principled position" that has allowed him to remain so steadfast in his approach, and in the process maintain his relationship with the crowd that is unhappy with the situation.

The problem for him, however, and the other players like Khatami and Rafsanjani who are trying to figure out a way to resolve the situation in a peaceful way while still pushing back, is the possibility of increased radicalism among the population. There may be increased demand for change that goes beyond the Islamic Republic. I can see that in the development of slogans that began with calls for Ahmadinejad's removal and then turned into "death to the dictator"--and it was not at all clear whether the "dictator" was Khamenei or Ahmadinejad. Today people are saying things like "Khamenei is a killer" and "his leadership is void." Things have clearly moved in a direction that has the potential of becoming so radicalized that Mousavi and others will not be able to manage it. Essentially, that has been the argument that Rafsanjani has been trying to make in the conversation in public with Khamenei: The approach taken to try and deal with the problem has been inflammatory and dangerous.

I had expected, perhaps naively, that on the eve of the inauguration there might be an amnesty and all of the prisoners would be released. Clearly, the authorities took the other tack.

Yes, they clearly took the other tack, but the interesting thing about this kangaroo court was that it wasn't done very well either. The indictment, for example, against the people who were brought to the court was itself a problematic indictment because it was not at all clear what exactly these folks were being accused of beyond the fact that they confessed that they made a mistake by calling the election a fraud. Even more problematic was the fact that if these general charges of treason are deemed true, then it is not at all evident why they should only be limited to the people currently on trial. Why stop here and not arrest the leaders of the opposition that now include two former presidents, one former prime minister, and a former parliament speaker. In fact, hard-line newspapers in Iran like Kayhan have already called for more major players in Iran to be charged with treason. So from the hard-line side of the political spectrum there can be a push in a direction that will bring into question major pillars and the whole history of the Islamic Republic. This is also a dangerous game that not even Khamenei can control.

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